So the unsettled feelings are percolating. Many and continued are the triumphalist pronouncements of church leaders that communities of faith thrive online, that connections are made and obstacles overcome (like prohibition of worship due to situations other than pandemics, eg. warfare, geography, disability), and that virtual communion is theologically sound. But some are not so sure. There’s the whiff of inflated rhetoric, a feeling that in not wanting to snuff out the humanity, some are led to overclaim for the spirituality of our technology. There’s disquiet felt by many at describing/entertaining Zoom and other digital communication as substitute presence (Giles Fraser and Paul Roberts), and not just faith leaders. I want to write here a short contribution to the debate, centred on some aspects of the technology’s materiality. In part, this is a response driven by the observation that not enough visual culture and media studies informs the discussions that readily flow into theological abstracts. In fact, I think that such abstracts miss the mark, precisely for not seeing the primary form of media exchange, the screen.
Theological discussion of the incarnation and the physical realities of Jesus and the Eucharist go some way towards an intellectual challenge. They muscle in on the conceptual space created by the overcoming of geography (with particularly purple-shirt ontological clout). You can, it turns out, throw all sorts of existential and philosophical enquiry at what simultaneity on screen might mean: you are there, but also here, and so ‘the body’ as Christ or the church can manifest itself in many different ways, literally for some, but also across the whole spectrum of metaphorical reality, including sacrament and symbol. Long, deep, and rich is the tradition of theological interpretation around images and their power – these are the verbal currents of exchange that truckload interpretation with conceptual and moral freight. Men and women coming out of vicar training colleges wield these ideas like full-blown Councils of Nicea. But such oversaturation has the effect of clipping in the digital image – you blow out the detail, creating flat areas of black or white and missing adherence to local situation. That, indeed, is the mark of a kind of category confusion: the interjection of wholesale ideas upon a two-dimensional representation. No matter how ‘transparent’ the simulation, no matter how real the figures seem, it is the medium which is the body, which offers the surrogate for presence.
Let’s step back a bit. We know how the shorthand version of this goes: the person on screen looks real, but is actually made up of varying pixel illumination (changing at speed); cameras are the primary functional operators, converting light’s energy to electrical signals. So do our eyes, for that matter. These are the answers to the ‘how’ questions, which in their place seem merely technical, an area of knowledge for practical answers. But does this understanding go deep enough? Doesn’t it, in fact, make more sense to talk ontologically and epistemologically about our relationships to objects of technology, and the extent to which they have an assumed use value in an economy of functionality – rather than a truth-bearing and revelatory value? Such is the integration of the science with our cultural worldview that where we are certainly beholden to the power of its images, we are also intellectually, and commercially, franchised to the means.
Unlike ‘using’ our eyes, we have to buy, own, and look after these technological objects in order to participate in their functionality. There is a paywall to communication here. That can, and should, deter the profundity of some of the theological claims being made: inclusion in online services requires financial means, as well as a hierarchical (if not entirely possessive) command of the instrument. We also inherently defer human agency in images of their kind, to the advanced specialist skills of a progressive society. These skills have developed through an engine of intellectual capital that has, for the last century at least, been applied to industrial and consumer need/desire. It is intellectual capital driven by the market – not by philosophical or moral enquiry for its own sake (though you might argue for a residual element of original creative enquiry).
To emphasise the point here again, we’re talking about the material technology, the carbonate stuff we hold in our hands, mount on a wall bracket, or trade in for upgrades – we’re not talking about the intellectual capital attached to the image itself (where the permissibility for connection seems almost utopian, but that’s for another blog, and other ontological-clout-contributors like Benjamin, McLuhan, and Baudrillard…). The physical objects for our most realistic images are high-precision complex pieces of electronic equipment, for which we have no personal human fingerprint or signature. Instead, we are on the receiving end of a conglomerate of impersonal human knowledge, parcelled out along long stages of production, the end of which most likely would not recognise the beginning, in whose machinations labyrinthine decisions for cost value and markup determine to a large extent the user functionality of the object. This in turn is enacted through the power we wield over the instrument as transactional, if not determinative, for human exchange.
Surely the limitations are obvious? Surely the attributions of theological efficacy are misplaced – certainly in the reductionist casting of God or Spirit in the role of Zoom share-holder? As much as Enlightenment thinking would render invisible the deeper cultural meaning of functionality (veiled as it is in the elaborate language of superior scientific description and performance), it is there. It is loaded. It is holding up whatever notions of spectacle and presence we would attribute to our screens. It drives the mining of our planet for endless supplies of lithium and cobalt. It confirms the hold of consumer identity and its ‘normative’ cultural participation over our relations with each other. Its knowledge puffs up, but ultimately does not build up, apart from as landfill. Theologians cannot afford to render it invisible, nor can they afford to align God with its mythical sub-text. Nor can they afford to pronounce from ‘outside’ their own use of the media, since the technology ownership by default includes their opt-in. Instead we need the courage to foreground our attachments, base as much as spiritual, as if the haptic were as much God-invested AND humanly-contingent as the perceptual. We need to see through our screens.
My father died on the 16th April. He had Parkinson’s, and was in a care home in Oxfordshire where, despite isolation, COVID-19 took away his breath. Parkinson’s took away other things, shading my last year with him in other ways: his frustration, his failing speech, his intent on leaving the wheelchair behind (but definitely not the walnut cake). On his last night, the carers read Psalm 23 to him, a man whose love of the Bible knew it inside out. Of all the things I want to remember about my Dad, this is up there along with his favourite jokes and repeated stories of his life’s adventures. He found the Bible to be so abundant, so profusely full of life, it spilled over into my life. And keeps spilling over. The Bible, and this photograph of my Dad’s Bible, is fundamentally generative for me, an evocation of him that escapes the bounds of ‘memory’ and becomes a picture of life to the full.
Which it was. Dad taught in Nigeria, Turkey, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, and Wales. The first three on that list were all before he was 40 years old, and include what he called his ‘baptism of fire’ introduction to Africa: teaching during the Biafran War at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and under Idi Amin’s regime whilst at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda. He was teaching physics in his specialist area of nuclear magnetic resonance (having been first to Oxford, then the University of Nottingham for his PhD), in countries without computers, and usually without running water, but with plenty of guns. Happily for him they also had motorbikes. And mangoes. But the science ultimately wasn’t to hold his interest, and in 1977 he retrained at Trinity College, Bristol, in Greek, Hebrew, and Old Testament studies for theological colleges. His father had been a Classics teacher in Yorkshire, where he grew up, and by his own admission this had put him off subjects in the humanities, but it seemed they were to claim him anyway through a discovery of the Bible, and an adventure in faith. It was at Trinity that he met my Mum, got married at All Souls Langham Place, London, and went out to Malawi ahead of us just after I was born (to Chancellor College, Zomba). By the time my brother was 4 years old, we’d moved to Kenya, where both my parents taught at the Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology, now Africa International University, until 1991.
Dad’s faith, from my perspective of a childhood spent abroad, was as vibrant and buoyant as his way with words and stories. He read from or with Bible stories to my brother and I, even into our teenage years (back in the UK). In every home we had a chair that I associate with him reading or praying from, as well as a book-laden study with its own atmosphere of grown-upness. He was a gifted preacher and teacher, and when I compiled a book of acknowledgements for his retirement in 2006, the tributes were overwhelming. He also published a commentary on the Song of Songs (IVP, 1994), and contributed articles to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (IVP, 1998) – on ‘Zion’, ‘Trees’, ‘Nakedness’, and ‘Kiss’. His teenage daughter at the time did not think the subjects particularly spectacular, though in a letter I’ve kept he seemed quite proud to tell me that this was an ‘artsy’ effort at biblical interpretation – as I was studying fine art at university. Dad could poke fun at church leaders or traditions (especially the British ones), while speaking with pin-sharp honesty and authority. In UK life, his later experiences teaching in Wales (now the Union School of Theology, Bridgend) kept him in touch with international students, but a wry mockery of everything from rain to Reformed seriousness would pervade what was undoubtedly the loss he and my Mum felt at leaving Africa.
When I think of my Dad, I think of someone who wrote things like ENJOY LIFE and SHOOT THE PREACHER in capitals, whilst facing experiences and people and continents with an unshakeable sense of Christ by his side. He was never overbearing (except to labradors who stole his shoes), but kind and funny and steadfast and bright. I imagine Job’s words, below, as his words (he did love a bit of Job, and always the Old Testament – about which he said he learnt more through African eyes than through a thousand Western commentaries). And I forgive him for lampooning my MA thesis writing style in his wedding speech. I proudly claim artsy wordiness as an inherited trait. To the party in heaven for someone who lived wisdom with such humour, I raise my glass. And put on my sunglasses.
He knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
My feet have closely followed his steps;
I have kept to his way without turning aside.
I have not departed from the commands of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.Job 23:10-12
This week, the churches closed. The coronavirus spreads worldwide, and in line with a governmental announcement curbing all social gatherings on the 23rd of March, the Church of England confirmed the closure of all church buildings on the 24th.
There are so many ripples and ricochets felt as the doors are pulled shut. Permit me, if I may, to add a reflection based on my own church, St Cyriac’s in Lacock, Wiltshire – a small offering of wonder and lament. Let me say first that I understand, and agree with, everything about church community existing in the people, rather more than the building. I recognise that to pray, worship, and serve is taking faith into new spaces, and that beauty and truth will grow differently as a result – I’ve seen it in small ways already; my family’s singing, on broadcast services, and in my husband’s parish newsletters. Amen for this.
But here, just for now, I mean to see the building, to hover at the door, listening to the silence. I resonate with the Dean of Westminster’s words, reflecting on the closure of Westminster Abbey, that it feels like a hard thing to close the doors on a building that speaks. And for me, St Cyriac’s speaks volumes. This time last year, I took over a thousand photographs of the place. I immersed myself in its material culture (from the cockatrice on top of the spire to the hare curling round a pillar), in its setting of Easter time through candles and curtains and cups, in its history from knights to cameras, in its life unfurling as people came and visited, cleaned and prayed, sung and whispered. I did this primarily for a project of reinterpretation – to write a new guidebook and produce new postcards. But now they have a poignancy, typical of photographic documentation, of something not just passed, but of something silenced.
One of the things that makes a body of photographs work, that connects the images like words in a sentence, is the consistency of visual language or content – and here it’s the church. St Cyriac’s as I’ve seen it is a language, not just a symbol. With its own dialect (probably West Country). It transcribes and translates my community’s fumbling expressions of what it means to be human both physically and spiritually. Depending on your faith position, it can be like a relative who reminds you ‘what things were like in my day’, or it can be like material mindfulness in spoken word. It can be a thick accent with the clod of tradition, or a pure echo of light and air. It can only sound like this because it’s been talking for hundreds of years, a veritable wisdom tradition in its own right. I struggle to shut it out of my mental and emotional landscape, which is why it is so odd to be shut out of it.
Fundamentally here, what I want to remember is that stones and mortar have this kind of vitality, this kind of contributing conversation, for people doing their wondering (and wandering) out loud. When Jesus pointed out that the stones of Jerusalem were bursting to talk, I think he shone this light on their language. I for one don’t want to lose the accent.